The Movie Waffler New Release Review - BLANK | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - BLANK

Blank review
A writer is trapped in a secluded retreat by a malfunctioning AI.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Natalie Kennedy

Starring: Rachel Shelley, Heida Reed, Wayne Brady

Blank poster

Stephen King's Misery gets a sci-fi spin, one that mines our growing apprehensions around Artificial Intelligence, in director Natalie Kennedy's confined thriller Blank. Rather than a writer being forced to work by an obsessive fan, the author here is held captive by a malfunctioning android.

At some undetermined point in the all too near future, acclaimed author Claire (Rachel Shelley) is suffering from a case of writer's block. At the behest of her nervy publisher, Claire heads to a secluded retreat designed to help writers focus on their work. The compound, which resembles the sort of loft the protagonists of '90s erotic thrillers always seemed to live in, is run entirely by AI, presenting Claire with two servants. One is an Alexa-like holographic entity, which she names Henry (Wayne Brady). The other is an android named Rita (Heida Reed), who bears the appearance of a stereotypical 1950s housewife and performs similar duties.

Blank review

Claire is also presented with a gadget that attaches to her head in order to stimulate creativity. When the gizmo brings back traumatic childhood memories, Claire dispenses with it, but begrudgingly accepts its aid when she fails to find any natural stimulation. This leads to a flashback sub-plot in which we see the young Claire (Annie Cusselle) live out a Cinderella-esque life of confined misery, with her overbearing blind mother (Rebecca Clare-Evans) assuming the role of the ugly sisters.

The idea of a writer rushing towards a deadline takes centre stage when a cyber attack leads to the compound being breached by hackers. Henry goes largely offline while Rita is reset to believe that she can only allow Claire to leave once she has finished writing her book. Unable to access the exits without Rita's approval, Claire is forced to knuckle down and write.

Blank review

Blank examines AI in a couple of ways we haven't seen before. It raises the question of whether a machine can understand art. When Claire presents Rita with what she considers her finished book, the android rejects it, claiming it doesn't have a real ending. As art is chiefly subjective, can it be judged by a machine programmed to view the world through an objective lens? What would an android make of a Jackson Pollock painting?

Kennedy and screenwriter Stephen Herman also delve into how frustrating it can be to interact with modern technology. Rita isn't the usual sort of malevolent machine we expect from sci-fi. She isn't a direct menace but her adherence to a strict code and a thinly defined set of rules means she poses an existential threat to Claire. Watching Claire grow increasingly frustrated by Rita repeating the same stock answers and suggestions, you'll likely think of how annoying it is when a self-serving checkout refuses to scan a barcode, or how a Captcha keeps telling you you've picked the wrong pictures of boats.

Blank review

The ideas Blank brings up are more interesting to ponder than to actually watch play out on screen however. Kennedy shuns the obvious potential for satire inherent in the scenario, resulting in a film that's suffocatingly dry in parts. It never quite works as a horror movie because the threat to Claire isn't immediate enough and Kennedy fails to communicate the idea of time running out in a sufficient manner to generate the requisite tension. The flashback subplot never quite gels with the main narrative. We expect a Shyamalan-esque coalescing of the two in the climax, but the ending of one has no substantial bearing on the other.

Shelley and Reed are both excellent in their respective roles, with the latter giving one of the more convincingly robotic performances I've seen, but the movie never pits their characters against each other in a thrilling enough way to make the sparks truly fly. The film's failure to interrogate why Rita has clearly been designed to appeal to the whims of men also feels like a missed opportunity to question who pulls the strings of our rapidly evolving world.

Blank is on UK/ROI VOD from January 8th.

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